Pokémon Go: Accessibility and Design in Augmented Reality

August 22, 2016

Pokémon Go traverses the border between sandbox and society by using augmented reality (AR) to lead players on an epic search to catch and train as many Pokémon as possible. An outpouring of praise has noted the game’s success in bringing people together as well as encouraging time spent outside, with many players citing the game’s positive mental and physical health benefits.

However, there are also a lot of people who are either put in harm’s way or outright excluded from the game due to a lack of accessible design and game modification that could otherwise welcome a larger audience. Players with physical disabilities, particularly ones affecting mobility, have no guarantees that the spaces where Pokéstopsand gyms are located (as well as where Pokémon spawn) will be within reach. Further, a recent software update has removed the ‘nearby’ Pokémon tool, rendering player hacks to forego traveling great distances on foot inaccessible. Players of colour have rightly highlighted the systemic risks and limitations imposed by society onto players, as Omari Akil mentions in his personal essay on the dangers of playing Pokémon Go while black.

Games often emphasize player immersion, but AR games like Pokémon Go overlap with landscapes devoid of ludic context, so the ability for hypervisible marginalized people to lose themselves in the world of AR is significantly restricted — and often interrupted — by the presence of the real world. Let’s discuss the ways design influences access to AR games, and how Pokémon Go’s design could be improved to make the game safe and welcoming for a wider audience.

Identifying Barriers

Good user design means taking the needs and desires of your audience in mind when developing a product. Recently there has been more visibility brought to accessibility in games thanks to organizations like AbleGamers. AR introduces a host of different criteria for game developers to consider, like awareness and access to a player’s physical space, whereas accessibility for non-AR games focuses more on hand dexterity, mobility, vision, hearing, and colour and light sensitivity. Game developers must design with those considerations in mind and more if they are to create an accessible AR experience for players.

In terms of UI and UX, Pokémon Go already falls short of many basic accessibility considerations. Considerable wrist and hand dexterity are required to capture Pokémon.  A lack of accessible colour schemes make the game much harder for colour-blind or low-vision players. Most importantly, the primary mechanic required to successfully play Pokémon Go is physical mobility. Not only does the game’s map integration rely on the player’s ability to travel outside of their home or office, but the game factors the walking distance travelled into the game’s core mechanics. Eggs can only be hatched based on the number of miles or kilometers traveled, and medals are won based on distance traveled. With no way to bypass these achievements, some players have devised creative ways to avoid walking great distances. While these hacks are a product of experimentation and interest in the game, it also means there’s a discernible barrier to topple in order to bring this game to an accessible place for everyone.

Mapping with Mobility In Mind

Niantic has some of the industry’s most seasoned mapping software developers, so it’s no surprise that Pokémon Go’s core design relies heavily on it. John Hanke, Niantic’s CEO and founder, previously founded Keyhole, Inc., a mapping software company bought by Google in 2004. In 2012 Niantic released Ingress, an AR MMO that makes use of traversing maps in the same way as Pokémon Go by prompting players to visit locations of cultural and historical interest to capture portals and gain control over areas based on your chosen team. Hanke noted the importance of designing the game with good mapping in mind, telling Mashable: “A lot of us worked on Google Maps and Google Earth for many, many years, so we want the mapping to be good.” Making use of geotagging and Ingress player feedback, Niantic incorporated over 5 million suggested locations for portals into Pokémon Go, turning some locations into gyms and Pokéstops. On integrating Ingress data, Hanke said, “We had essentially two and a half years of people going to all the places where they thought they should be able to play Ingress, so it’s some pretty remote places.”

Additionally, many players have identified that a Pokémon’s type corresponds to either the environment where it maybe found or a specific weather condition (e.g., fire types spawning on hot days or at gas stations, water types showing up near lakes and rivers, ghost types being found mainly at night, electric types appearing during a thunderstorm, etc.). Locations and spawn points are linked to these contexts; a well-implemented design feature that is both endearing and indicative of the level of work put into the game’s development. This underscores Niantic’s ability to take those considerations further by including mobility, access, crime and safety statistics and other useful publicly available data for AR development and implement them into the game. Ingress players, who have supplied geotagging data to Niantic since the game’s launch, have already noted issues of safety and run-ins with the police. Utilizing this data on Pokémon Go players can ensure that gyms and Pokéstops fall into physically accessible areas, as well as distinguishing between public and private property.

Games For Everyone

An important consideration for AR developers to keep in mind is that games — whether they be VR, PC, mobile or console — are a medium known for offering escape in a controlled environment, like one’s own home. Designing and developing AR games means the player’s physical atmosphere is also part of the game’s context, and as such, it must be considered when designing the game’s world. Pokémon Go has made brilliant use of mapping and user data to influence and integrate the digital and physical spaces players explore, but those considerations have stopped short of acknowledging the social and physical aspects of gameplay outside of the game’s universe. Basic features however, like ensuring player access by considering large-scale influential social and physical barriers have been left unresolved, and point to a serious lack of awareness and intent towards inclusive design.

Accessibility — whether for physical access or for the ability for players to safely and freely explore AR technology — is a foundational tenet of good game design. A lot of positive experiences and feedback have been documented following Pokémon Go’s release, much of which Niantic surely could not have anticipated. In our pursuit to design bigger and better games, let’s not forget audiences that have been implicitly excluded. Everyone deserves the opportunity to explore worlds filled with fantasy and fun.

Header Photo CC-BY Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, cropped and modified.

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